Trusting the Process

by | Jul 22, 2019

I’ve been thinking about trusting the process recently.

How many of you go out and practice with the camera? Test different functions and settings to see what they do, and learn how to take advantage of them in your photoography?

I feel like learning how the tools work, and learning how to make them do what you want instead of what they were programmed to do, is part of owning the process of creating images.

So the other day, I had to go out and do some scouting for an outing I am doing tomorrow where I take some people out birding as a fundraiser. I decided to take the camera along and try some new techniques, since most of what I was doing was waiting and seeing what came by. One technique was a new way to do focus for birds in flight, which is a notoriously fussy problem to solve at the best of times. The other was that I’ve wanted to test shooting using Auto-ISO and see if I liked the results.

FWIW, the new focus technique worked pretty well; it involves using manual focus and focus peaking to pre-focus in a range vs trying to hope the autofocus handles things properly in the rush of a bird taking off. The auto-ISO? Not so much. When I downloaded and examined the images, they were pretty generally of poor quality due to excessive noise.

This may sound like a weird thing to happen, but it’s a side effect of the X-T3 processing: the processing engine is heavily biased to make whatever lousy image you shoot usable, which means you can throw it a massively high dynamic range image and it’s going to beat on the pixels until there’s effectively zero blown out or crushed pixels, and if your exposure is wrong, it’ll try to fix it for you before handing you the RAW image. Most of the time this is a good thing, I’ve found, and sometimes it’ll drive you crazy.

The side effect of all that special processing is noise, and the more it has to hit your image with a hammer to make it behave, the more noise it leaves behind. These images had massive noise issues, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s inherent in auto-ISO under my conditions or whether I did something wrong (so: more testing needed). What I did figure out was that I saw that auto-ISO didn’t really improve my process for taking images, so I won’t make learning how to use it a priority any time soon.

The time I did this test was noon to 2PM on a bright, clear day. The birds were mostly backlit, the air had a lot of moisture in it, which causes haze and glare, and it was a warm day, which causes heat shimmer on distant things. In other words, about the worst possible conditions for good flying bird at long distance photography.

Which if you think about it is perfect, because the one thing you shouldn’t be worrying about while testing new technique is great pictures, because learning how stuff works and turning out great stuff are mostly incompatible: you MIGHT get something, but it’ll be luck, not skill. Or more likely, you’ll forget you’re supposed to test and go on the hunt, ruining your intent for the outing. So bad lighting is perfect for testing stuff, because it adjusts your expectations.

And I mention that because while I was watching, a couple of raptors (a Golden Eagle and a White-tailed kite, fwiw) got into an argument, and I got great looks and a long string of crappy pictures of the two of them in an air dogfight. Watching them was awesome, and wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there at the time.

And there was a time when not getting great images would have really pissed me off, because, well, that’s not an every day thing, and the fact that conditions were such it was technically impossible to do good work would have been irrelevant.

But… part of the process of trusting the process is learning what CAN and what CAN’T work, and coming to understand when to pull out the camera and when to just sit back and enjoy the show. If I hadn’t been testing technique, the camera wouldn’t have been out, and so I’m perfectly okay that these aren’t great pictures, because in reality, great pictures weren’t possible, so blaming myself for missing the shot is silly.

And getting to that point, where you can look at a bad shot and realize you did your best and it wasn’t good enough, and moving on without beating yourself up — is part of the process. the process of learning the process, of knowing what can and can’t be done, and trusting yourself to know that if it can be done, you will, and not beating yourself up when it doesn’t work because it never was going to…